Suzie Cornnell is an American from Pennsylvania. She has lived in Baku since 1992 where she works as a teacher at Baku International School. In response to previously posted expat views on life in Baku, here is her take on some aspects of life in Baku.
Guest Blog by Suzie Cornnell
Having lived in Baku since 1992, I think I have a rather unique perspective on life here. I’ve spent more of my time with locals than expats and appreciate the unique cultural qualities of Azerbaijanis. Please take into consideration that this country was only “born” in 1991 and at the time the country was at war resulting in an internal refugee crisis as 20% of its territory was occupied, leaving countless people homeless. In 1994 the oil “Contract of the Century” was signed and Azerbaijan began its first steps into modernity and prosperity. In 21 years this country has taken giant steps to improve all aspects of life here, far more than can be observed in most post-Soviet republics.
Food and Shopping
Expats must know that they are not going to get everything in the same way that they do back home in their country. The fresh fruit and vegetables are actually better here than in US, however, meat is not. The usual staples are available, as are plenty of foreign products. You may have to shop around a bit to find everything you need, but that’s part of the fun! There are plenty of restaurants, local and international, in all price ranges; quality of food and service vary, just like anywhere else. You will find some favorites and stick with them. Shopping for clothes can be a bit more problematic and I recommend that you bring what you need from your home country. Still, some major chain department stores are here – Debenham’s, M&S, and Zara for example – and literally hundreds of other clothing shops. Fashion is very important to Azeri ladies, but they are very small ladies indeed!
Accommodation varies totally! There are many 100-year-old buildings with refurbished apartments, dozens of newer high-rises, closed community housing and individual private homes with comfortable courtyards and gardens. This will be your biggest challenge: finding just the right place to live. Location is important and most expats prefer to live in one of five areas: downtown near Fountain Square which offers mostly apartments, in Patamdar/Badamdar and Genclik, which are suburbs and offer more residential-type housing. Additionally near The International School of Azerbaijan (TISA) is the Stonepay housing complex and near downtown is the newly opened Port Baku Residence as well as a few other high-rise apartment buildings. Housing in these areas is excellent, but take note that the plumbing system is different here than in western homes and sometimes produces a smell and the water quality may be a bit harder than you have in your home country.
Traffic has improved greatly over the years as road works have been ongoing for the last 10 years, parking lots have been built and penalties/towing for illegally parked cars are now enforced. If you’ve lived in Cairo or India, this will be a breeze. Expats should know that driving is a challenge in many countries, and this is no exception, so just go with the flow. Excellent private drivers are usually provided if you are with an international company. If not, you can hire your own driver or metered taxis are widely available.
Azerbaijan offers wonderful natural places of beauty! It is certainly well worth exploring the country. Mountains and ski/golf resorts, beaches, mud volcanoes and picturesque villages, to name just a few. Baku itself, has much to offer for a metropolitan area of four million people. There is, of course, the spectacular Boulevard along the Caspian Sea which extends for 3 km along the shore and has plenty of space to run, stroll, rest and dine. Parks with fountains and greenery are all around the city. Then there’s the “Old City” which has wonderful little alleys and old buildings to enjoy. The city center has undergone a complete facelift in the last 10 years and is surprisingly clean and well maintained. As a single woman here, I’ve never had any safety issue out and about on my own which is something remarkable, especially compared to large cities in other countries.
Life Style, Making Friends and Culture.
All expats know that when they move to another country they have two choices: making friends with expats or embracing the local culture. I recommend both! It’s no surprise that Azeris have a different culture and different customs to people back home. That’s to be expected and is a magical part of the expat experience. Azeris are warm-hearted, family-oriented and friendly, especially if you just say a few words in their language. They are also very curious which means they may look a bit too long at a foreigner, a feeling we are not used to from home but it shows interest rather than bad manners. My Azeri friends say they also get the “stare.” The local quirks, such as cutting into the queue and being much more physically close than you might be comfortable with are just part of the local culture. The service and work ethic is only in its infancy. Under the Soviet system, they were discouraged. Considering that that was a mere 23 years ago, Azerbaijan has made enormous strides to educate those in service to provide the best. Be patient.
Generally speaking, trailing spouses join International Women’s Club which is a service organization comprised of 50/50 locals and expats. It is a great way to meet friends. As their meetings and coffee mornings take place during working hours, it’s not an option for those who work.
Everyone is welcome to join the Baku Hash House Harriers (https://www.facebook.com/hashhouseharrier.baku) which is a group of locals/expats who meet on a Sunday afternoon to go for a run or walk for an hour or so, then go off for drinks at a local pub. It is great fun and I met all my best friends on the Hash. Experienced expats will know about HHH as it is a global organization started in Malaysia in 1938 by Brits. Perfect for single, working people!
Children and Schooling
Baku offers many opportunities for children to have fun, both in natural areas as well as in plenty of other public areas such as malls, cinemas, bowling alleys, swimming pools, and a planetarium. Bakuvians are devoted to their children and aim to provide the best they can for them. There are many clothing shops, including, for instance, Mothercare, providing everything in terms of children’s’ clothing you may need or want. Sports opportunities are widely available too, particularly if you are with an international organizations as they generally provide a discounted rate to health clubs. There are two truly English-language-based schools in Baku as all head teachers are native speakers. There’s BIS (Baku International School) which offers an American curriculum and TISA (The International School of Azerbaijan) which offers a British curriculum. Otherwise, there are several international schools, locally owned, which offer a British curriculum with some native speaker teachers. There are also Turkish schools and other national or specialty schools.
In terms of working in Azerbaijan, be prepared for this to be quite different to your home country. Considering that Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet system for 80 years and only began its journey from socialism (don’t get noticed, don’t initiate) about 20 years ago to a western culture with a western work and service ethic, this is still quite a challenge for local people. That said, enormous strides have been made in such a short time. Patience, coaching, praise and understanding is the way to succeed in Azerbaijan.
- N.B. The opinions expressed by the author of this post are not necessarily those of Fizz of Life.